- With the monumental success of the original Batman film in 1989, it comes as no surprise that the studio begged director Tim Burton to make a sequel. However, this was an idea that did not exactly excite Burton, as he did not see himself making Batman films for the rest of his life. In the end however, greater creative control over the project persuaded Burton to direct Batman Returns in 1992. One can see Burton's creative control in every shot of the film; where Batman does feel more than just a good "superhero film," Batman Returns feels particularly more like a "Tim Burton film" rather than a "Batman film." To my surprise, this factor ends up being one of the lower aspects of the film, as some of the Burtonesque elements make the film too bizarre for its own good while the all-Batman aspects stand-out as the film's greatest strengths.
Rather than repeating the same outline as Burton's first Batman film by pitting Batman against one villain who is causing havoc and chaos, Batman Returns sees Batman up against three villains and four different avenues of schemes that he needs to stop.
First there is Danny DeVito's the Penguin, who ends up being less like the actual comic book character (a short, fat, big-nosed MAN) and more like an odd Burtonesque creature: deformed and savage. Burton tries to make this Penguin character "misunderstood" but it does not work, as the Penguin is anything but something that resembles human, completely evil and very unsympathetic in my view. As much as the film tried to make me, I could not weep for him - I just wanted Batman to dropkick the sucker at every possible opportunity. The Penguin does not want to rule Gotham or get rich, he, at first, just wants to find his parents - then he wants to run for Mayor of Gotham to be accepted by society followed by a desire to steal all of the first born children in the city and drop them in the river as he was. DeVito portrays the Penguin well enough; however, there are many times when DeVito himself comes through stronger than the actual Penguin character and it feels like we are just watching DeVito try to branch out as an actor. I never like watching actors act - I like watching actors perform great characters and then, after the movie is over, admiring what a great job the actor did, but I get absolutely nothing out of watching actors fail to create convincing characters and just act.
The second villain is Max Shreck (a riff on the silent star Max Schreck), played by Christopher Walken, a powerful business figure who wants to drain Gotham's power supply through a fake power plant he is trying build. Shreck ends up being a villain for both Bruce Wayne and Batman: Wayne tries to stop Shreck's plan through legal and business-oriented means and, when Shrek tries to help the Penguin run for mayor to get his power plant created, Wayne must stop him through his alter-ego Batman. Shreck is not as interesting on paper as Christopher Walken eventually makes him through his odd yet subtle portrayal of the character (subtle for Walken anyway).
Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman is the third and final villain who ends up being both a villain and a hero. Selina Kyle can blow up buildings, steal, and join forces with the Penguin to get rid of Batman as Catwoman while at the same time romancing the ever-intrigued Bruce Wayne. Pfeiffer is very good as the Catwoman/Selina - one can easily see both why she is so dangerous and why Wayne is so intrigued by her but Pfeiffer also puts sexy into crazy in a way that is just flat-out fun to watch.
Many film fans consider Batman Returns the darkest Batman film to date and I could not disagree more. Returns has far more goofy scenes and puns than the 1989 Batman film ever had (Nicholson was able to make the Joker funny and psychotic at the same time) and Batman also offers a far more brooding Bruce Wayne than Returns does. Also, where Batman looks and feels influenced by film noir, classic gangster films and the like, Batman Returns feels more like Frank Capra and Howard Hawks-meets-Burton's era-neutral Gotham City. While this element is FAR from bad (I would actually list the visuals as the film's greatest aspect and something that keeps it both similar yet very different from the first Batman film) it also makes the film definitely not as dark as 1989's Batman.
Burton is back in Batman Returns with some more interesting visuals (as I just explained) but the story he tells also has some interesting elements. I love the idea of Batman being framed by the villains so that Gotham City will hate him and I really enjoy the relation and tension between Batman and Catwoman - these two themes feels like essential Batman stuff to me.
Unfortunately, while Michael Keaton gives another great performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman, the character is not remotely close to being as interesting as he is in 1989's Batman. He is not the damaged loner that we saw in the first film; now he is headstrong and a little too eager to open up to someone he hardly knows. This direction taken with the character is very disappointing. Also disappointing is something I alluded to earlier in this write-up: the film is filled with too many Burtonesque oddities. Selina's apartment-ravaging freak-out has little point to it and just feels weird, the Penguins sub-street underworld is too weird even for the comic world of Batman, and little things one just raises an eyebrow at (whether it is a stupid line, weird character, or lame prop) are improperly seasoned throughout the entire film. Burton's creativity could be strongly felt and was a huge plus for the 1989 Batman film but Batman Returns feels too much like a Burtonesque nightmare.
When taking the big Batman picture into account, Batman Returns makes for a pretty good second act with some new ideas, themes and characters; familiar yet new atmosphere; an extension of Burton's Batman fantasy world; and a fairly entertaining story for the dark detective to unravel. Nevertheless, Batman Returns also falls into the disappointment category, unable to match strides with the previous Batman film and being a little too Burtonesque bizarre for its own good.
CBC Rating: 7/10